The First Reformed Settlement in the New World: The French Reformed Colony in Brazil

[Our celebration of the Reformation is often focused on what took place in Europe. But how did it spread to the Americas? The following article by Rev. Good explains the very first attempt to bring the Reformed faith to America, beginning in Brazil. In those days, Reformers were often martyrs as well—not so much at the hands of the natives encountered, but from Roman Catholics who continued their assault on Protestantism in the “New World” as well. Thank God for the courage of conviction shown by these early Reformed missionaries. May such zeal inspire us yet today, as the Reformation continues.]

The forerunners of the German Reformed Church in Pennsylvania were the French and the Dutch. It is, however, to be placed to the credit of the Germans that the first colony ever planted in America was German. The king of Spain mortgaged South America (all the America known to him) to the great German banking houses of the Welzers and Fuggers in return for their financial aid in colonizing and developing the new world. Thus Welzer, a wealthy merchant of Augsburg, obtained a grant of territory from Emperor Charles V., and in 1526 he sent three ships with 500 soldiers and a company of traders to South America. This colony erected a fort and laid out a town. Through the later separation of Germany from Spain and the death of Charles V, the colony was finally broken up after it had existed for thirty years. But its memorial still remains in South America in Venezuela, which is the Spanish for Welzerland. It is also interesting to notice that not only were the first colonists Germans, but that the first colonists that were Protestants were Reformed. They included among them the first foreign missionaries of Protestantism.

The first Protestant settlement in America was the French Reformed colony in Brazil. And as they began the work among the native Indians there, they also have the honor of being the first Protestant missionaries. Protestantism was hardly born before it began to save the heathen. These missionaries were sent out one year before the Lutherans sent their first foreign missionaries to Lapland. The names of these first missionaries deserve to be embalmed in fame. They were Peter Richer and William Chartier.

The Beginning of the Colony

In 1555 a French colony was sent to Brazil. It was led by Villegagnon, who by his ability and bravery had become vice admiral of Brittany. He was the one who in 1548 had brought Mary Queen of Scots safely to France in spite of the watchfulness of the English. He espoused the Protestant cause and dreamed of founding a great French colony in the new world. Admiral Coligny too approved of the expedition, for he feared a persecution (such as came so terribly on himself and the Huguenot Church afterward) and he looked westward toward America as an asylum for his persecuted brethren. The expedition sailed July 12, 1555, from Havre and landed in the harbor of Rio Janeiro, November 10, 1555. They took possession of the country in the name of France, calling it Antarctic France. On an island in the harbor, which still bears his name, Villegagnon erected a fort.

On February 4, 1556, he sent one of his ships back to Europe, and through it sent word, asking for some Reformed ministers for the colony. The Reformed family of Churches has always been ready to respond to a call to missionary work, and the church of Calvin, at Geneva, at once appointed two ministers. They set sail together with about a dozen artisans from Geneva, led by DuPont, in a ship which had about 200 colonists. After being almost shipwrecked they arrived at Rio Janeiro March 9. When they saw land, they rejoiced with new joy at being the first to tell the story of Christ to the heathen.

Villegagnon welcomed them by a salute from the fort. A thanksgiving service was held, at which they sang the fifth Psalm, after which Richer preached on the 26th Psalm. Villegagnon ordered them to hold a daily service. On March 21 they celebrated the Lord’s Supper, the first time a Protestant communion was ever celebrated in America—a forerunner of many rich spiritual feasts to the thousands of Protestants who after them settled in this western world. It was not long before the ministers, touched by the condition of the natives, endeavored through an interpreter to teach them the first principles of the Protestant religion. The natives were greatly astonished at what they heard, and some of them promised to become worshipers of the true God.

Persecution Comes

But the colony had too short a history to produce great or permanent results. Unfortunately, Villegagnon began gradually to return to the Romish faith. Among the emigrants was a student of the Sorbonne in Paris who had been secretly promised the episcopal jurisdiction over the colony if it were won back to Rome. To accomplish this, he introduced controversies on some doctrinal points with the Reformed ministers, as, is it lawful to mix water with wine in the Lord’s Supper? may the sacramental bread be made of Indian corn? etc. He also objected to certain rites of the Reformed, claiming that unleavened bread ought to be used at the communion, and baptism should be with salt and oil as well as water. The ministers stoutly withstood him. But when Richer preached against these doctrines, Villegagnon became angry and forbade him to preach on such subjects and to administer the Lord’s Supper. The questions in dispute were referred to the French Reformed church, and Chartier was sent back to Europe for a decision on these points.

While Villegagnon was in this uncertain state of mind, ship from France arrived, which brought him a letter from the Cardinal of Lorraine restoring him to the bosom of the Catholic Church again. He now openly attacked Calvin, calling him “a frightful heretic.” He began persecuting the Reformed by ordering Richer to subscribe to the Romish doctrines of the mass and purgatory. This he refused to do. He therefore drove Richer and the Genevan contingent from the fort. But whither should they go? There was not a Protestant colony in all the new world save their own. They went across the bay to the mainland at the risk of being massacred by the Indians. Fortunately the natives received them kindly and brought food to them, while they in return tried to teach them the way of life.

As they could not exist there long, they asked permission of Villegagnon to return to Europe. He finally allowed them to return on a French vessel that came into port, provided they would take in their vessel a sealed chest. In this, with the basest perfidy, he had placed a paper which was to be given to the judge of the French province where they might happen to land. This paper preferred charges against them as heretics and directed the judge to seize them and burn them at the stake.

Ignorant of this perfidy, they set sail January 4, 1558, having been in Brazil ten months. They soon found that they had exchanged a wretched existence on land for a more wretched one on sea. The ship was slow and unseaworthy. On the seventh day she sprang a leak. Fortunately they were able to stop the leak, but the ship carpenter declared that the cargo was too large for such an old and worm-eaten ship. The captain, afraid that if he once landed, his crew might all leave him, refused to turn back, but offered a boat to any who might want to return to America, then ten or twelve leagues distant. The captain was the more willing to do this as he had not sufficient provisions.

Five of them accepted his proposition and took the small boat to return to Brazil. They floated along for four days, using their clothes for sails, when a severe storm came up on the sixth day, which threw them ashore at the foot of a high mountain. They then proceeded to Riviere des Vases. At this place the natives treated them very kindly After staying with them for four days, they started back to Villegagnon and arrived there in four days.

They begged him to receive them, in spite of their differences of faith. He did so, but becoming suspicious that they were spies sent back by DuPont, the leader of the Genevan contingent, he attacked them by ordering them to sign a Catholic confession of faith within twelve hours. Of course they refused to do this and ordered Bortel, the best educated among them, to draw up a confession in reply, which they signed. Villegagnon then arrested Bortel as a heretic, and when he bluntly refused to recant, he brutally struck him with a fist and ordered him to be hurled from a high rock on the island into the sea. Another, Vermeil, was led to the same rock, and when be refused to recant, he too was thrown over into the sea. A third, Bourdon, was sick in bed; but when he refused to go over to Rome, Villegagnon had him bound and carried in a boat to the rock of execution where he was cast into the sea. “This,” says Kalkar, the great Lutheran authority on missions, “was the first blood shed as a witness for evangelical missions.” The Reformed Church, as it had the honor of having sent the first missionaries to the heathen, had thus also the honor of having the first martyrs for missions.

Meanwhile those who remained on the vessel, which these had left, seemed doomed to a living death. A hundred times a day it seemed as if the ship would be swallowed up by the waves. The crew were kept at the pumps night and day, and yet in spite of their exertions they were hardly able to keep the water down. One day as the carpenter was mending a part of the ship, a plank gave way. In a moment the sea rushed in with the force of a torrent. The sailors came rushing on deck, crying, “We are lost.” The carpenter, however, retained presence of mind enough to thrust his coat into the hole. And by treading on it with all his might, he resisted the force of the water. He soon received help, which enabled him to keep the hole shut until he prepared a board with which to close it. On another day, when the powder was drying, some of it caught fire. The flames quickly ran from one end of the ship to the other, and set the sails and cordage on fire. Four men were burned (one of whom died) before it was put out.

To all these horrors was added starvation. They had with them a number of parrots and monkeys, which they were taking home as curiosities. These were soon eaten. Then rats and mice were hunted and eaten. Even the sweepings of the store room were gathered and cooked into a sort of pottage; and though it was black and bitter, they were glad to drink it. Those who had bucklers made of the skins of the tapiroussou (an animal of Brazil), cut that skin into strips and devoured it. Others would chew the covers of their trunks and the leather of their shoes, yes, even the horn of the ship’s lanterns. They became so starved that they would have been glad to exchange their state with that of the king in Scripture, who is said to have eaten grass. Finally nothing was left for them to eat except Brazil wood, which is said to be the driest of all woods. Peter Richer, the Reformed minister, was so prostrated by hunger that he could not lift up his head, even in prayer. Indeed, owing to the intensity of the sufferings, it is remarkable that they did not kill one another for the sake of food.

Finally, after a voyage of five months, the pilot said he saw land. This was very fortunate, for the captain said that be had determined that on the next day they would have to draw lots for the purpose of killing one of the ship’s company for food. They landed finally on the coast of Brittany, near l’Orient, at the mouth of the Blavet River, on May 26, 1558. The inhabitants, touched with the story of their sufferings, kindly gave them food and assistance. Many of the sailors, however, neglected the precaution necessary for starved men and ate so freely that they died. Others recovered, but for a long time were afflicted by various diseases, as blindness, deafness, swellings of the body, etc. And just here we can see the kind providence of God. The French Church had always believed in the safety of God’s elect. The sealed box, which Villegagnon had given them, was given by them, all ignorant of its contents, to the judge of that district. Fortunately they had been cast on a portion of France where the judge happened to be favorable to the Protestants. Instead, therefore, of executing the treacherous orders of Villegagnon, he on the contrary treated them with great kindness and permitted them to return to their own homes.

The colony in Brazil was soon after destroyed by the Portuguese. Villegagnon returned to France, where he tried to clear himself of his cruelty and perfidy, which had become known to the world. So ended the first attempt of the Reformed to settle in the new world. But though the existence of the colony was brief, its career was glorious, because of the movements it started in the Reformed Church. Its founders attempted to lay the basis of the greatest work of the Protestant Church—foreign missions. As Reformed they attempted to make the western world Protestant. All honor to Richer and Chartier, the pioneers of Protestant missions, and to the three martyrs for Protestant missions, Bortel, Vermeil, and Bourdon. The bay of Rio Janeiro is said to be the most beautiful in the world, but it is not more beautiful than the crown of immortal glory belonging to these missionaries and martyrs.

from Rev. James I. Good, History of the Reformed Church in the United States in the Eighteenth Century, 1725–1792
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